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Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet

Author: Graham Meikle
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2002
Review Published: November 2005

 REVIEW 1: Roberta Buiani
 REVIEW 2: Victor Pickard

In 2002, Graham Meikle raised a crucial question: Will the Internet remain open or closed? While cataloguing varieties of online political campaigns, Meikle, a lecturer in Media and Communication at Macquarie University in Sydney, felt compelled to emphasize the internet's inherent openness—what he referred to as "internet version 1.0." But even while celebrating a florescence of internet activism in his book Future Active, Meikle also struck a darker note. He warned us that we were staring into the precipice of an "internet version 2.0" defined by rampant commercialization, privatization, and state surveillance. By bringing into focus the central tensions between internet agency and internet structure, Meikle moves beyond simply typologizing internet activism. In so doing, he tempers an enthusiasm for internet activism with a clear-eyed look at the encroaching state and market forces that actively foreclose democratic alternatives. This backdrop serves to contextualize and ground his theories of activist groups while exploding persistent myths regarding cyberdemocracy and benign commercialism. He pegs Version 2.0 rhetoric as pretending "the market can work its magic if governments adopt a hands off approach," which he characterizes as "the cyberhype of the virtual mall, in which processes of commercialization are hidden behind a veil of technological determinism through which changes for the better will somehow just happen, as though on their own accord" (37).

Beyond cutting through market boosterism endemic to Version 2.0, there are three major strengths that give Future Active shelf life. First, the book situates the internet-based politics in terms of strategy, goals, and tactics. Second, it outlines a useful taxonomy of the oft-touted interactive qualities of the internet. Third, it provides thick description of various types of internet activism that remains applicable today. In addressing these attributes, Meikle is careful in choosing his case studies to show that internet activism covers a broad swath of the political spectrum and not simply the province of the digital Left. This last point is important to contemplate given right-wing bloggers' recent successes in "swift boating" public discourse and sniping just as many -- if not more -- public figures, Dan Rather included.

All told, Meikle looks at around two dozen internet campaigns and groups, including the McSpotlight campaign, the Free Software movement, and the right-wing One Nation. His taxonomy of internet activism posits three general categories according to their strategies and aims: alternative media, like Belgrade radio station B92's campaign to thwart Milosevic's censorship; open publishing/open technology models, exemplified by Indymedia; and tactical media. This last category is less concerned about building better models and more about "mobility and flexibility, about diverse responses to changing contexts" (119). Under the tactical media rubric, Meikle looks at culture jamming methods aimed at subverting political messages, like the parody website georgewbush.com during the 2000 election. He also examines creative offshoots of electronic civil disobedience, hactivism, and Netwar. Meikle argues that internet activism is always inextricably linked to larger projects and social movements that require mobilizing, awareness-raising, and ideological solidarity -- all increasingly dependent on the internet.

Meikle offers a typology of interactivity based on Jens Jensen's (1999) work that might be useful for some researchers, outlined as four distinct forms: transmissional (signing up for an announcement list), registrational (accepting a contract with a website), consultational (selecting from limited choices on a website), and conversational (participating in an email exchange). Although these characteristics are, according to Meikle, symptomatic of internet version 1.0 and not the entrenched corporate interests of version 2.0, he highlights intercreativity as the ideal interactive model. This model relies on the horizontal and cooperative nature of the internet that enables activists' alternative media. To his credit, Meikle interviews many of the activists he describes and does a good job of letting their voices come out in the book. Overall, his clear writing and clearly organized chapters makes for an interesting and accessible read.

Perhaps the book's greatest weakness is a missed opportunity for connecting his analyses to more systemic and systematic critiques of corporate power. Though he touched upon them, more discussion of Naomi Klein's (1999) and Lawrence Lessig's (2001) work would have strengthened his critique. He also could have drilled deeper into some of the underlying power relationships that structure online action. A quick nod to Nick Dyer-Witheford's (1999) Cybermarx and Dan Schiller's (1999) Digital Capitalism could have moved his analysis into deeper theory. Likewise, though his book is not bereft of issues relating to race, class, and gender, he could have better foregrounded these hierarchies and asymmetries by critically examining who is most likely to use internet technologies and who is left out. There is a long-standing critique that North American white male activists are disproportionately using and benefiting from these technologies.

Nevertheless, Meikle's cautionary tone at the beginning and end of the book, which, in other contexts, may seem like an obligatory inoculation against wild utopianism, now proves prescient. Recent policy developments and the ongoing struggle for principles of network neutrality have borne out his trepidations. For example, the Supreme Court's Brand X decision may forever change the character of the Internet by forfeiting open access, interconnectedness, and free flowing content principles to corporate gatekeepers. Handed down on the same day, the Grokster decision on file sharing renders illegal the kind of cooperative action that Meikle praises. Further, recent trends of criminalizing municipal ownership of wireless broadband networks and enclosing precious spectrum away from public use combine to actualize the feared internet 2.0.

It is true that internet activism as practiced by radical groups like Indymedia, political powerhouses like Move On, and subversive bloggers comprise an increasingly sophisticated countervailing force. This new media power can preempt mainstream media representations, confront corporate malfeasance, and take on a wide array of social inequities. Yet, in most cases, corporate giants have captured the policy apparatus that rigs the game, ranging from draconian intellectual property laws to exorbitant broadband fees. Meikle saw these signs in 2002. The question now is whether it is too late to reclaim and salvage a vanishing internet 1.0. Such a question may depend on whether internet activists will remain content with organizing action and launching campaigns from within their interstitial spaces, or whether they will organize more towards electoral mobilization and creative policy interventions. The latter action draws not from bong-induced visions of the internet rendering old power relations moot, but rather the realistic hope that the potential openness of the internet can be used towards democratic ends and not simply corporate profits.

After the flurry of recent books on Internet activism, Future Active may not bleep loudly on many radar screens. Moreover, such a central focus on cyberactivism may seem oh-so-2001. But three years on, Graham Meikle's Future Active remains an important milestone in Internet scholarship, both as an insightful account of numerous case studies of internet activism and as an artifact of an earlier and more hopeful stage of the Internet's development. In light of recent developments, the analyses offered in Future Active may seem Nostradamus-like, taking on new urgency today. In short, Future Active has aged well. Academics, armchair commentators, and keyboard agitators would do well to go back and read or reread this book.

Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999). Cyber-Marx: Cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Jensen, J. F. (1999). "Interactivity: Tracking a new concept in media and communication studies." In P. A. Meyer (Ed.), Computer media and communication: A reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 160-187.

Klein, N. (1999). No Logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador.

Lessig, L. 2001. The Future of ideas: The fate of the commons in a connected world. New York: Random House.

Schiller, D. (1999). Digital capitalism: Networking the global market system. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Victor Pickard:
Victor Pickard is a doctoral student in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His work on Indymedia, internet policy, and political communication has appeared in the Journal of Communication and forthcoming issues of Critical Studies in Media Communication, Global Media and Communication, and Media, Culture & Society. He is currently writing a dissertation on mid-1940s normative theories of media democracy.  <vpickard@uiuc.edu>

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